Saturday, November 06, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK # 121: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century: "The Plot to Kill a City" (1979)

Well, I didn't necessarily expect to revisit Buck Rogers in the 25th Century (1979-1981) again so soon after my 2010 review of the second season premiere, "Time of the Hawk," but one of my favorite bloggers in the known universe (and in the Uncharted Territories...) -- Sci-Fi Fanatic -- recently posted for debate and discussion the genre magazine Sci-Fi Now's list of the five best and worst episodes of the disco decade series. 

I won't pillory or second-guess that periodical's list too roughly, primarily because I believe it's extremely cool of the magazine to look back at a thirty-year old sci-fi series and give it some much-needed love and attention (remember, when I worked for another genre magazine circa 2000, the editorial  rule of thumb was that you couldn't write about any genre TV series that a contemporary "16 year old" wouldn't be familiar with.)

That sense of appreciation carefully established, I don't agree with very much on the Sci-Fi Now Buck Rogers list, save for the inclusion of "Space Vampire" as one of the five best installments. 

But I felt the most glaring omission involved the absence of the series' epic two-parter, "The Plot to Kill a City" as a selection for best segment. 

Buck Rogers vs. The Legion of Death.
This exciting two-parter aired on October 11 and October 18, 1979, and was written by the talented Alan Brennert.  Dick Lowry directs.

"The Plot to Kill a City's story opens in media res, with Buck Rogers (Gil Gerard) on a mission to take out and replace a legendary criminal named Raphael Argus.  Argus, you see, is a member of "The Legion of Death," a terrorist group planning to deliver "final retribution" on New Chicago (a city of 10 million people...) for the death of one of  its comrades.

Because Buck hails from the 20th century, there's no record of his existence anywhere in the data-heavy, computerized 25th Century, and so Dr. Huer (Tim O'Connor) at the Earth Defense Directorate sends Buck to infiltrate the Legion and learn its secret plan.  Since the Legion of Death members rarely gather -- and don't know each other by sight -- this seems a perfect plan.

Not so fast, however, as Buck is soon pitted against a team of James Bond-worthy villains. 

A soldier villain? Varek (Anthony James)
Leading the Legion of Death is a brilliant scientist from Rigel IV, Selon Kellogg (Frank Gorshin). 

He's the mastermind and formidable "general" villain of the organization.  Kellogg is cruel and merciless, willing to visit death upon innocent millions for a personal slight. 

If you've watched Batman, you may recall that Gorshin is expert at portraying exaggerated, larger-than-life villainy, but his Kellogg is a different breed from the Riddler all-together: a deadly serious, deadly somber threat; a real (and utterly horrible...) person.

At Kellogg's side stand several incredibly powerful and memorable "soldier" villains and minions.  Their numbers include Quince (John Quade), an assassin from a heavy gravity planet armed with telekinetic powers, Sherese (Nancy DeCarl), an empath who picks up "vibrations" and who is "pathologically suspicious," and Markos, a martial arts expert who has "partially severed" his nerve endings to reduce his ability to feel pain (and yes, we saw a villain much like Markos in The World is Not Enough [1999], didn't we?). 

Finally, there's the hulking Varek (Anthony James), a masked mutant and Kellogg's personal bodyguard.  He boasts the ability to "alter his molecular density."   In other words, Varek can walk through walls.

During the course of the story's two-parts, Buck must infiltrate the Legion and stay ahead of these powerful villains.   This task is made more difficult by his entanglement with a betrayer named Barney (James Sloyan), after the comic strip's "Black Barney."  Buck must also evade galactic police, who believe he really is the notorious Raphael Argus.

As Buck soon learns, the Legion of Death plans to destroy a matter/anti-matter power generator outside of New Chicago. The Legion forces an employee at the power station to help them evade security by threatening the lives of his children. 

"Show me a family man who can afford to be a hero..." Kellogg quips.

With time running out, Buck finds an unexpected ally in Varek...

The space port on Aldebaron (later re-used in ST: TNG: "Coming of Age").
It seems to me that --  especially in the case of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century -- one must judge the quality or worth of the series' installments within the boundaries of its action-oriented format and particular historical context. 

In this case, the Glen Larson TV series was broadcast post-Star Wars.   That says a lot.

That historical context means audiences  must expect a cute robot (Twiki), plenty of flashy laser beam fire, space dogfights, and a heightened sense of romantic action/adventure.  

In broad terms, the series format basically makes Buck and Wilma futuristic "secret agents" working for Dr. Huer's Directorate, putting cosmic bad guys out of business while acting "undercover."   Not particularly deep; but the stories are often immensely engaging, and almost universally entertaining.

Many weeks, it's James Bond in space, all right, and as is the case with the best Bond films, the best Buck Rogers episodes are often those which feature the most interesting villains

"The Plot to Kill a City" serves up a literal "legion" of such nemeses, plus an appealing Bond girl (Buck girl?)  in Markie Post's cute-as-a-button Joella Cameron.  The threat is also grave enough to hold the attention: the destruction of New Chicago and 10 million people at the hands of the terrorist villains.

If you choose to look at Huer as "M" or "Q" while he gives Buck his gadgets of the week (black light bombs...) the comparison to the Bond franchise is complete.

Within the parameters established above -- Buck as Bondian secret agent, bracing space adventure -- the truly rewarding Buck Rogers episodes remain those that  are able -- through clever writing and execution -- to often find a sort of unexpected "sweet spot" in this superficial Bond formula:  a spot where story and character ingredients work on a deeper-than-surface level. 

Markie Post is a futuristic Bond Girl.
Where was that sweet spot located?  Well, it often became apparent when Buck's humanity and fish-out-of-water predicament played an important role in the narrative, and when good, solid science fiction concepts ably supported the front-and-center action. 

Even better, it occurred when those solid science fiction concepts were ones that had something relevant and important to say about American life during the late 1970s or early 1980s.

With the "The Plot to Kill a City,"  you can put checks in all those boxes.  

Make no mistake, Buck Rogers is not Star Trek, which by and large remains a meditative vehicle on human morality, but this  comparison doesn't mean Buck couldn't tell meaningful, dimensional tales, either.  

Most importantly, the superficial good guys vs. bad guys nature of the "Plot to Kill a City" is supported ably by a surprising, welcome and very human character subplot.  In this case, Varek -- the masked body guard -- originates from a planet that survived a "winnable" nuclear war, only to face a future of terrible genetic deformity.  Varek hides his misshapen face behind a golden mask so as not to reveal his hideous visage.

Late in the first segment, Varek tells Buck Rogers that he deserves to be Kellogg's servant, a slave essentially. 

"I deserve no better," he declares with self-loathing.  "My people were a proud race...too proud.  It wasn't enough that we had tamed our planet, built a great culture, reached out into space.  We had to have other worlds too.  We abused our freedom and we lost it, and deservedly so."

Later, when Varek realizes that Kellogg plans to visit a similar apocalypse upon Earth's innocent children, he gets over his self-pity and hatred and actively joins Buck's cause.  "You can't imagine life on my planet," he explains.  "Children afraid to look at their own reflections.  Children with the touch of death."

The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few?
In the end, Varek saves the day by facing his own death.  Eyes wide open, he walks straight into a radioactive anti-matter chamber to stabilize the reactor. 

Inside, Valek re-aligns the power system, and saves the generator...and all of New Chicago.

And yes, this heroic incident -- with a character bravely and knowingly facing extinction before the eyes of his comrades in a sealed compartment -- oddly foreshadows the specifics of Spock's death in the engine room in The Wrath of Khan.

More to the point, however, Valek is no ordinary "guest star of the week," but rather a character who is well-developed, and undergoes an arc of learning and development during the story.  He changes sides not on a writer's whim, not because the story demands it, but based on his difficult life experience, and that idea comes through pretty powerfully without being overtly preachy.

Also, it's important to recall that America was locked in a Cold War with the Soviet Union in late 1979, when this episode aired.  The specter of nuclear annihilation was always present -- every day -- like a shroud, hanging over all of us.   This episode of Buck Rogers expresses the terrible horror of nuclear Armageddon, with children paying the consequences for an "international" disagreement over political ideology.  Even more so, it suggests that those who use such weapons to conquer others deserve themselves to be subjugated and enslaved.  Not a tame statement in the year leading up to Russia's invasion of Afghanistan, and the American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics.

Again, this "apocalypse mentality," this expression of fear around a nuclear war, lends a commendable gravity to this episode that not all Buck Rogers episodes abundantly possess.  Although the Earth itself is a victim of nuclear holocaust in the series, the writers of the program never returned Buck to Anarchia to face the savagery of his time period, and the ideological passions that led to such global horror.  "The Plot to Kill a City" gets at the idea in a different way, and in a way that resonates well.  Other episodes of the series would certainly try --"Olympiad" was about a defector from an oppressive planetary regime -- but none truly got to the stark horror of nuclear brinkmanship in the way that "The Plot to Kill a City" does.

Kellogg's starfighter.
When I discuss solid science fiction concepts in terms of this two-part episode, I'm talking about the way the episode creates deadly and unique "assassins" out of other-worldly environments. 

It imagines a world of heavy gravity where the inhabitants develop the power of their minds (telekinesis) so as to control their environs.  It imagines Valek's world of nuclear apocalypse; a world that took a dark path which, fortunately, our Earth has not. It features an "empath" as a deadly conspirator and interrogator, and much more.

With the exception of Valek and his milieu, these concepts are not explored in great depth, merely touched upon, but then again we must return to the concept of Buck Rogers as an action series.  The natures and backgrounds of Quince, Sherese, Markos and the others are imaginative and believable enough to make the story fly (and to suggest a larger world), and that's what's important.

I still remember watching this compelling two-parter when I was nine years old, and being absolutely glued to the television as those terrible words -- "To Be Continued" -- popped up.  There was the feeling then that Buck Rogers -- for all its swashbuckling fun -- was hitting on all creative thrusters too.

"A Plot to Kill a City" serves up a number of great villains, and one tragic character too.  Because it consists of two parts and has roughly ninety minutes to tell its tale, the story is fast-paced but also takes the time to get the small touches right.  For all of the series' sense of fun and humor, there was always the impression here that the danger presented by Kellogg was real and grave, and that matters of great consequence were occurring.

Certainly, I didn't feel this involved, this intrigued with "Space Rockers," or "Cruise Ship to the Stars" either -- two relatively lame Buck Rogers installments that somehow made Sci-Fi Now's list of five best episodes. 

So I'd substitute "The Plot to Kill a City" for either of those episodes without reservation.

Friday, November 05, 2010


Although it isn't heralded as much as it likely should be, the span from 1980 - 1987 surely represents a new golden age in terms of silver screen fantasy. 

This was the era that brought the world Clash of the Titans (1981), Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), The Dark Crystal (1982), Conan the Barbarian (1982), Tron (1982), The Neverending Story (1984), Legend (1985), Highlander (1986) and many, many more.  

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), The Road Warrior (1981), Superman II (1981) The Last Starfighter (1984) and other titles of this epoch also leap quickly to mind, sterling instances of action, superheroic, post-apocalyptic, and outer space-styled fantasy. 

In all likelihood, this renaissance in cinematic fantasy arises from the unprecedented financial success and cultural popularity of George Lucas's Star Wars in 1977. That grand space opera was the ultimate pastiche of Lord of the Rings, Arthurian legend,  Joseph Campbell's mythic heroic journey -- the so-called "monomyth" --and about a dozen other literary and filmic sources of both swash and buckle.

In 1983, director Peter Yates presented another big-screen fantasy in this mold, the handsomely-mounted epic called Krull.  The movie was a box office bomb, unfortunately, and has never really found a considerable audience.  

Yet in terms of visuals, the film remains both incredibly imaginative and dazzling in almost breath-taking proportions   Pre-CGI, Krull presented an alien world in terms that seem both realistic and legitimately other-worldly.  That's no easy trick, and perhaps Krull's greatest success is forging this sense of "place" that seems both tangible and a little magical.

Writing in terms of narrative, Krull's familiar fairy tale story plays mostly like a familiar re-iteration of the Campbell "monomyth," featuring stock characters such as the young hero who-would-be-king, the damsel in distress, the old wizard, the comedic sidekick and the embodiment of True Evil, here known as The Beast. 

Despite this overly familiar story, Krull offers viewers some unique and worthwhile flourishes.  In particular, one emotional and tense interlude involving a character called "The Widow of the Web" (Francesca Annis) contextualizes the classic  heroic journey in terms of generational passage. 

That's a novel and worthwhile twist that grants the Yates film a much-needed sense of gravitas leading up to the final battle.

Only if we're united do we stand a chance against them...

The Black Fortress lands on Krull.
In very broad strokes, Krull depicts a story about freedom and individual liberty (and not incidentally, true love). 

On the distant world called Krull, an alien Beast has landed in his menacing Black Fortress and set loose his destructive slayers to dominate the almost-Medieval-style landscape.   The Slayers are terrifying soldiers too: greasy insectoids housed in humanoid armor, boasting deadly, advanced technology.  When the armor is breached, the juicy insectoids squirm out, squawking plaintively.

The humanoid people of Krull bravely resist the deadly, planet wide invasion. In particularly, two kingdoms unite when young Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) and Colwyn (Ken Marshall) choose marriage over the political status quo.  Unlike their bickering fathers (think the  Hatfields  and McCoys), the next generation of Krull selects unity over division and petty differences. 

But the Beast is not content to see his enemies unite.  His slayers lay siege to Lyssa's kingdom and capture the young princess.  His father murdered, Colwyn is left, barely alive, to brace an uncertain future. 

Fortunately, a wise old man named Ynyr (Freddy Jones) travels down from self-imposed exile in the distant Granite Mountains (think Obi Wan Kenobi in the desert wastelands beyond the Skywalker farm...) to instruct the boy how to destroy the Beast and rescue his true love.

The Glaive: An ancient symbol of freedom.
The first order of business is for Colwyn to acquire an ancient weapon called a "Glaive" -- a five-point, jewel- encrusted throwing-star (think of Tron's MCP-destroying frisbee/disc).  Colwyn climbs a treacherous mountain peak to remove the Glaive from a  bed of lava. Like Arthur's sword-in-the-stone, Excalibur, Colwyn holds the glaive up to the light to see it shine...

The next order of business is for Colwyn to learn where the Black Fortress is going to materialize the next day.  In one of the story's more interesting twists, The Beast causes his headquarters to teleport from day-to-day so that it can never be located, much less attacked. 

With the help of Ergo the Magnificent (David Battley), a robber named Torquil (Alun Armstrong) and his merry men (including  Liam Neeson and Robbie Coltrane), plus a lonely Cyclops, Rell (Bernard Bresslaw), Colwyn sets out to learn this information from a blind Seer (John Welsh).

Unfortunately, the Seer is replaced by a deadly changeling in a perilous swamp, and the heroic protagonists face an ambush by Slayers.  Many of the team are killed in the ensuing, leaving Ynyr no choice but to visit the mystical Widow in the Web -- his long-lost lover, also named Lyssa --  to acquire the important knowledge about the Beast's lair...

Meanwhile, in the Black Fortress, the Beast attempts to seduce Lyssa with a golden wedding gown and the promise of immense power (a clear predecessor to a similar plot-line in Ridley Scott's Legend).  She resists, temptation and voices one of the film's unpretentious themes.  When she is told by the Beast that "love is fleeting; power is eternal," she turns the axiom around on him, insisting the reverse.  "Power is fleeting; love is eternal," she insists.

Eventually, in Krull's prescribed and all-together expected ending, she is proven right, of course.  The Beast is defeated by true love, and everyone on Krull (and in the galaxy) lives happily ever after.

And if you're pure at heart, you simply wouldn't have it any other way.

Krull as Monomyth

The Kingdom of Krull is threatened and order is overturned, true to the Monomyth.

In (perhaps too...) dutiful fashion, Krull ticks off every anticipated stop in the long-established "hero's journey."  There's Colwyn's initial "call to adventure" as he is forced to become King when his father is murdered by Slayers.

Then there is the archetypal "refusal of the call," -- a dedicated refusal to fight and to accept personal fate/destiny -- until Colwyn is guided by a surrogate father-figure, Ynyr.

In further compliance of the Campbell outline, Colwyn also calls upon supernatural aid in his quest to fight Evil.  Here, those supernatural auspices are the weapon with a mind of its own, called a glaive, a lonely Cyclops, an inept sorcerer, the wild fire mares, and the Emerald Seer  Without these supernatural tools supporting him, Colwyn could not emerge from his trials victorious.

Colwyn also succeeds at the Monomyth's "first threshold" by retrieving the ancient weapon -- the Glaive -- and, finally, in the third act, goes into deep into "The Belly of the Whale," the villain's frightening, Hellish headquarters.  Here, in the Home of the Beast, Colwyn undergoes a metamorphosis that allows him to understand his spiritual powers.   Specifically, his union with Lyssa -- true love -- makes him strong.

Why, there's even the archetypal a woman temptress in one important scene, and finally, Colwyn -- after his road of trials -- delivers a boon unto his people: a generation of peace, and a son who shall benevolently "rule the galaxy."

You can admire Krull's slavish devotion to the details of the human monomyth at the same time you might feel compelled to yawn a little and note that -- especially in this fantasy film era -- we've been here before.

"No Man has Ever Seen Him and Lived"

Princess Lyssa trapped in the mind's eye of The Beast.

The primary reason that Krull is as diverting and entertaining as it is?  Even almost thirty years after it was made, the film's visual imagination is nothing short of dazzling.  The film is, without exception, gorgeously crafted.

In particular, visual effects supervisor Derek Meddings and production designer Stephen Grimes have forged a marvelous fantasy world that, even now, compares favorably with modern CGI epics such as Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings installments.

There are several stand-out scenes the film that yet dazzle the eye and spark the imagination.  For Lyssa's captivity in the Fortress, for instance, the interior of that Pandemonium-like structure is depicted in utterly surreal terms.  The Beast is seen only in distorted glimpses for much of the film; but the inner chambers are bizarre, abstract and wholly impressive.  At one point, Lyssa appears to be trapped in a room that resembles a giant claw (she is literally trapped in the Beast's grip, the set design reminds us). 

At another memorable juncture, Lyssa is seen staring out from a chamber that appears to be a humanoid eye.  This means that the Beast's eye is upon her; and the weird surreal sets like this also express the notion that The Beast and the Black Fortress are two heads of the same monster; that its interior is a representation of his fearsome, inhuman Id.  The Campbell-ian idea of the "Belly of the Whale" is translated very literally: this is the belly (or brain?) of The Beast.

The point of all this strange and almost biological interior design is to preserve the mystery and terror of the Beast as long as possible; and therefore heighten suspense about his gruesome, malevolent nature.  He is not seen as a recognizable (and very alien...) life-form until the film's not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion. 

And then, after his wicked Fortress interiors have done so much work to establish his evil creds, the visualization is almost a disappointment; a man in a suit.  It's a good suit; but clearly a suit nonetheless.  The Beast is more effective in close-ups, and even in the final battle, Yates relies on these close-ups, wisely, to accent the Beast's alien-ness and undercut our sense of place (and therefore safety).

The Slayers spring their trap in a wonderfully-realized visual moment.
Outside the Black Fortress, another visualization that holds up remarkably well involves the deadly swamp where the Blind Seer is replaced by a long-fingered Changeling.  All the trees in the swamp are dead, gnarled things; and the sky in the background is a hazy, menacing mauve color.  But the best moment sees a squad of Slayers rising slowly from the reflective waters of the swamp -- heavily armed -- to launch their surprise attack. 

There's something incredibly powerful about this moment: alien soldiers on an alien landscape, attacking the film's heroes.  It looks like a real evocation of an extra-terrestrial war in ways that CGI somehow can't yet manage (Avatar excluded, perhaps).  Watching this scene, you are immersed in the details of the planet's struggle, countenancing visions of believable "otherworldiness."

Perhaps the film's most dynamic visualization occurs as wise old Ynyr attempts to navigate a gigantic spider's web to reach his long-lost love, the Widow.  He is shadowed by a giant spider the whole way, and the scale of the web (and the albino spider) is nothing less-than epic.

Shot at Pinewood Studios in England, and on locations in Italy and Spain, Krull is a gorgeous fantasy that legitimately deserves comparison to The Dark Crystal, Legend, and other classics of the period.   Yes, the visuals are that good.

Where Krull comes up a little short, however, is in its pacing and an its perhaps too-simple narrative.  At just over two-hours the film feels over-long and slow-paced, even with James Horner's rousing, blood-pumping score. 

And the film's lack of major cult support from fans arises, I believe, because unlike Star Wars or other fantasies of the period, the film does not very clearly erect a believable or logical basis for its "magic." 

To wit, in Krull's last act, Colwyn learns that the Glaive is not the source of  his power.  Rather, it his love for Lyssa and vice-versa, that gives him such awesome power.  He takes on the Beast and literally shoots fire out of his hand, like a flame thrower

While this is undeniably a beautiful thought -- that unity brings great strength and power -- it is also somewhat child-like. 

On the one hand, that childishness grants the film a legitimate and nice sense of wonder.  On the other hand, it sometimes plays a little as arbitrary.  Convenient that Colwyn's hand should become a flame thrower, right?  Though, certainly, an early wedding ceremony in the film involving fire, as well his retrieval of the Glaive from fire/lava, embeds this eventuality as a possibility.

Another way of saying this is that George Lucas made sure in Star Wars that everything had a basis; a kind of sense. 

The use of "The Force" -- an energy field binding, penetrating and surrounding all life forms -- enabled the "magic" to not seem magical, if you get my drift.  There was an order to things, and if you could tap into the Force, you could influence others (Jedi Mind Trick), and even destroy the Death Star. 

Here, there's some sense of inconsistency, of magic haphazardly applied to resolve crises in the story.  How does Ynyr -- the wise elder -- know so much about the Black Fortress and the Beast, for example?  

It isn't even clear how long these "invaders" have been here, at all.  We see the mountain arrive (from deep space) at the film's opening, and a voice-over narration tells us of the Beast's history for taking over other worlds, but that doesn't answer the question. 

Is the Beast new to Krull, or is this a multi-generational campaign of terror? 

Also, how does Ynyr know of the Cyclops' otherworldly history?  He recounts a fascinating tale that positions the Cyclops as extra-terrestrials who were seduced by the Beast's promises, but how does he know this information?   Come to think of it, who first spoke the "Prophecy" of Lyssa, Colwyn and their offspring?  The answer: we don't know.

Occasionally in the film, Ynyr functions too much as all-purpose exposition without explaining how he knows so many important things. He is a convenient mouthpiece for the writer, for the most part.

Furthermore, since it is relatively easy to tame the film's flying "fire mares" (think Pegasus in the original Clash of the Titans), why aren't these impressive and fast-moving animals being harnessed in battle against the Slayers and the Beast on a regular basis?  Seems like that could even the odds a bit...

And where are the people of Colwyn and Lyssa's kingdom, anyway? We see a castle, beautifully-realized, and the palace guard decimated by the Slayers in a great battle scene, but no "regular folks."

When you couple the random application of magic with the overly familiar details of the monomyth -- the quest, the sacred Excalibur-like weapon, the wise elder, etc. -- Krull finds it hard to sustain interest at two hours. 

The make-up, visual effects, production design and scoring do a lot of the heavy lifting for a narrative that often seems to glide, on automatic pilot, to its pre-ordained conclusion. 

Even the occasional movie quotations -- such as a fight with Slayers in the palace that recalls Errol Flynn's Robin Hood -- don't do much to make the movie move nimblly enough.

"These are the Sands of My Life"

Colwyn (Ken Marshall) and Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) play hide-and-seek.
All these criticisms and questions established, Krull is not without an overarching theme of relatively nice complexity. 

Specifically, the film balances the story of Old Ynyr and his Lyssa (The Widow of the Web) with the story of young Colwyn and his Lyssa. 

That both  female characters in the film are named "Lyssa" is no accident.  Rather, the identical name for this damsel in distress makes the audience consider the woman (the love object of the hero in Campbell's monomyth) as something more than a person. Krull contextualizes the princess as a woman "of ancient name," meaning that this name carries with it an historical legacy.

In two cases in the film, a "man" (Ynyr and Colwyn, separetly) has the opportunity to follow his heart -- to unify the world too -- and find peace and happiness with a "Lyssa."  In the case of the older generation, that opportunity is lost.  Ynyr forsakes his Lyssa and out of anger, she murders their child together.  As punishment, she is transformed into the eternal "Widow of the Web," a creature luring men to their doom.   She is not happy about her crime or her fate, but as this Lyssa tells Ynyr, her "rage needed a victim."

Ynyr is now an old man, and in this stand-out sequence, he forgives the woman he once left; realizing his part in her unhappiness and rage.  He was not true to their love.  They will have no future together ("no man has ever escaped the web"), but at least there can be final reconciliation.

With the current lovers, however, the mistakes of the past can be rectified. Kingdoms can be united...and love can become "eternal."  Lyssa does not accept the seductive wealth and power of the Beast; and Colwyn does not accept the sexual comforts of a woman who comes to him (really a minion of the Beast).  They have learned from the mistakes of their fathers and are not going to repeat them.

In short, this is an optimistic take on the world in the 1980s, a time when old men in the United States and the Soviet Union held the fate of the world in their hands (and could destroy civilization with the push of the button). 

Here, the young generation promises to set right that which the older generation has gotten wrong (and in terms of contemporary films, you can see the same theme played out in Wes Craven's 1984 version of A Nightmare on Elm Street).  The dream of Krull is not for a world of eternal enemies on opposite sides, but "a single kingdom under our children."

That's still the dream.

But the wistful, sad "Widow of the Web" interlude powerfully gets at the passage of the generations.  Every generation has its chance to succeed, and must grasp it or face death a failure. 

In this enchanting scene, Ynyr notes that his "race is run" and his Lyssa implores him to help the world anyway, even if they, personally, shall die.  "Save the other Lyssa," she pleads.  This is Krull's way of noting that there is a time when adults must stop living for today and for their own happiness, and start living for the happiness and continuance of the species; for the next generation; for their children.

Alone, this beautiful and sad passage nearly manages to redeem the almost rote "monomyth" narrative of Krull.  One wishes the film could have followed through with a bit more of the complexity and adult perspective depicted here, but then perhaps wonder might have been sacrificed.

Still, overall enjoyment and appreciation of Krull arises from the film's stellar production values: effects, sets, make-up and costumes that still impress and even amaze nearly three decades on.  But also largely from the Widow of the Web sequence which is the red meat, perhaps, that grown-ups need to enjoy what seems like an almost childish fantasy at times.

It doesn't hurt if you posses that proverbial pure heart, either, at least during a screening of this movie. 

The are movie virtues other than originality, to misquote Ynyr in the film, and one of them is charming innocence. 

Krull succeeds on that front, which is one reason I feel "safe" sharing this film with my son, Joel while he is still young.  Without cynicism or skepticism, the movie dreams big for a better tomorrow and it does so with vivid, gorgeous visualizations. 

Maybe in these days, that's legacy enough worth cherishing.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Sci-Fi Wisdom of the Week

"Never try, never fail. Those are the words I live by."

-Robots (2005) 

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Their Brains Glow in the Dark!


As always, our country's  future is in our very own hands. 

Vote your conscience.

Vote your hopes.

Vote for a better tomorrow. 

This is your chance to make your voice heard, and to shape the government you want to see.

One vote can make all the difference.

And finally, if you don't vote today; don't complain later on if things suck...

Sunday, October 31, 2010

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010)

Over the last several years, I've become something of a pragmatist in terms of horror movie remakes. 

There are so many of 'em out there (and so many still coming our way...) that the only to broach them fairly -- and at least relatively objectively --- is to take them on a case-by-case, individual basis. 

So I try to find the good where I can, even if it is a re-vamp of a classic that is under the spotlight. 

And facts are facts: "remakes" of The Thing (1982), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), Nosferatu (1979) and The Fly (1986) remain some of the  best horror films ever made.  You might even add 1988's The Blob to that select list too.

Given this reality, it makes no sense to boast a blanket philosophy against horror movie remakes.  You take the risk of dismissing something good if you do. 

The problem is that there are so many remakes -- arriving in such rapid, heavily-hyped succession -- that it's indeed difficult to distinguish the wheat from the chaff.

What I've detected, in broad strokes, in this current crop of genre remakes  --  (2000 to 2010) -- is that the best ones appear to be those that replace the original's sub-text with an updated, relevant one

In other words, the remakes must reveal something valuable to us about our lives in the here-and-now.  They can't just be disposable "jump" and "jolt" roller-coaster rides.

In other words, a remake can't be the "same" movie as the original because times have changed and different talents are involved.  But if a remake excavates a comparative path to quality -- gazing at our world  as it is now; pushing the boundaries of today's cinema, etc. -- then it very may well offer something worthwhile to commend it.

I believe that Marcus Nispel's Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead (2004) and Alexandre Aja's The Hills Have Eyes (2006) all fit that bill. 

Are these remade titles all-time classics like the originals from which they sprang? 

Only time can answer that question for certain.  But I think, at the very bare minimum, they are good movies that honor the memory of the originals and also boast their own distinctive visual and contextual identity.

Also -- and I realize this is a highly controversial judgment -- I feel that history may judge Rob Zombie's Halloween movies more kindly than many of us (including myself, at times...) do right now. 

Why?  Although Zombie's Halloween remakes are drastically different from Carpenter's in approach and aesthetic, they do substitute an artist's legitimate, if controversial, individual vision.  Is it the vision that I prefer for Michael Myers?  Absolutely not.  I prefer Carpenter's minimalism.  I prefer Michael Myers as the Shape -- as an ambiguous, mysterious figure -- not as an abused child.

But it seems both foolish and unfair to deny that Zombie's Halloween movies represent the efforts of a  distinctive artist taking risks, making bold choices and pushing things to the limit....especially given Zombie's other, generally well-regarded contributions to the genre (namely House of a 1,000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects).

This is a very long preamble to a discussion of the remake of A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010). 

But I believe it is abundantly necessary to spell this all out, in meticulous detail, because this is one case in which a remake is almost stereotypically awful.

I didn't want my distaste for this movie to be erroneously perceived as a complaint against the remake form in toto.  It's too easy to dismiss my review if that were the case, and I don't want that to happen. 

Long story short: Samuel Bayer's A Nightmare on Elm Street is shallow, poorly-made, and wholly lobotomized -- yes, downright stupid -- compared to the Wes Craven, 1984 source material.  The remake fails to scare; it fails, even, to generate interest around its by-the-numbers "investigative" storyline.  More than anything, the movie plays like a bad remake of  an obscure J-Horror, like One Missed Call, perhaps.

Of course, the new Nightmare on Elm Street cannot be the old one.  I don't expect it to be.  But it fails on the creative basis I wrote about above.  It doesn't replace what was so good about the original Craven film with anything of comparative value or quality.   The remake fundamentally misunderstands the original's point-of-view and is a pale, play-it-safe, whitebread effort.  It pushes no boundaries in terms of the genre; it is a dull, unimaginative piece of work.

Let's talk a bit about the original Nightmare on Elm Street for a moment. 

I often describe Wes Craven as the genre's social conscience, and his first Freddy Krueger film is Exhibit A.  The 1984 film is not merely about a dream killer stalking teenagers; it's about something much deeper in human nature.  In particular, A Nightmare on Elm Street concerns the idea that it is a sin to bury the truth -- no matter how painful -- and far better to face dig it up and show it the sunlight.

Wes Craven gets at this important idea in a few significant ways.  The parents of Elm Street (who murdered Freddy), lie to their children, like Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp), about their crime, and so the sins of the fathers -- the lies -- return to impact the children. 

We see the price of denial and repression all through the film.  The Thompsons have divorced.  Nancy's mother hides in the bottle -- she's an alcoholic -- so she doesn't have to face the truth about the vigilante action (murder...) against Krueger.

Unlike her parents, Nancy digs and prods at the truth to save her own life.  She won't hide from the truth about Krueger, and Craven actually makes an intelligent comparison in the original film (in an English high school class, no less), between Nancy and Shakespeare's Danish prince, Hamlet. 

Both characters seek the truth about "their fathers,"  even though those truths are uncomfortable.

Society wise -- and I'm authentically sorry this upsets or angers conservatives -- this dynamic also reflects dramatically what was happening in political America in the mid-1980s. 

Ronald Reagan, an avuncular, father-figure was by-and-large telling Americans that they could have it all.  They could have tax cuts and spend heavily on defense and not cut entitlement; and there would be no consequence, said Reaganomics.  There was a price, of course: the deficit ballooned dramatically in the 1980s.  

Again, the sins of the father were being visited upon the children.  Who would pay down the national debt?  The children of Elm Street all over America.

Again, I don't mean to offend, but genetically-encoded in A Nightmare on Elm Street is this notion of a battle between Americans generations.  The generation that denies and represses the truth (the middle class parents of Nancy's Elm Street; the Establishment of the 1980s) and the younger generation, which would hopefully learn to do better and grapple with problems rather than pawn them off to their own kids, a generational IOU.  

"I'm into survival," Nancy notes at one important point in the original film, and this is critical commentary about the times.  As youngsters of that era (and I was close to the same age as Nancy in 1984...) many of us indeed worried about our survival. 

Again, not to harp on President Reagan (whom I appreciate for his handling of the Challenger incident, for example), but he was the President who joked on an open mic that bombing of Russia would begin in "five minutes."  He was the President who incorrectly stated in a debate that nuclear missiles could be recalled from submarines after launch...which was not true.  He was the President who said that Jesus would return in his life time and that we were likely the last generation

This is not political attack or partisanship...these are facts.  These are the things the man said, and as children and teenagers, we heard and internalized the messages from the Bully Pulpit.  We had to be into survival, like Nancy.  It was up to us to determine the truth, and fight back against lies.

At the end of the original Craven film, the only way to defeat Freddy is for Nancy to turn her back on him.  Not ignore him, not deny his existence but -- knowing full well what and who is he is -- take away his power in the open.  In other words, take the wind out of his sails; solve the problem.  Give it no more power over the course we steer. 

This was an important turning point in the development of the character of the Final Girl in the Slasher Movie Paradigm.  Nancy took responsibility for defending herself; and for beating the Bogeyman.

The point is that -- if you so choose -- you can gaze at Craven's A Nightmare on Elm Street on multiple layers.  As a frighteningly good horror film; as, thematically, the idea that things repressed return as symptoms...and must be faced.  Or, as a political point about the context under which the film was produced: the so-called "apocalypse mentality" of the 1980s. 

Through Wes Craven's careful layering of elements (including literary allusion to Hamlet), the film opens itself up to interpretation and analysis.  It becomes about "something" other than a guy with finger knives, slicing and dicing nubile teenagers. 

In terms of structure -- and the act of  pushing the horror film format forward -- Craven blended the naturalistic-style Slasher Paradigm of the early 1980s with "Rubber Reality," infusing "knife-kille" horror again with the supernatural...and the spectacular.  That was a big deal at the time, and it opened the way for rubber reality horrors such as Hellraiser (1987) and even Candyman (1992).

So here comes the remake in 2010, and instead of similarly commenting on our society now, it plays it safe and sound in every regard, and actually subverts the messages and meaning of the original film.

How does this movie play it safe? Well, consider how characters have changed since 1984 to become more timid, more bland.  In the original film, Nancy's mother was an alcoholic because she buried the truth.  Here she is not.  Connie Britton plays a concerned mother who counseled against killing Freddy.  See, she's reasonable and nice, not a law breaker, not a vigilante, and certainly not a heavy drinker! 

In the original film, Rod was a legitimate juvenile delinquent -- a "rough" kid.  Here, his replacement, played by Thomas Dekker, is not.  He's just another typical suburban kid; one who happens to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.  In the original film, people believed Rod could be guilty of Tina's murder because he was a bad boy "from the wrong side of the tracks;" because he had a history, and because he was deemed unacceptably lower class by the middle class.  Not here.  

In the original film, the parents of Elm Street are depicted as outright negligent.  Remember Tina's Mom and her boyfriend, and how he asked "are you comin' back to the sack or what?" while Tina was facing the prospect of a terminal nightmare?  Not here.  Tina's surrogate -- Kris -- faces the exact some death as Tina, but there are two important differences.  First, her mother is not negligent; she's just a stewardess who needs to go to work, to take a flight.  And secondly, Kris does not have premarital sex before she dies (as Tina did, with the "bad boy," Rod.)

So this is a far more timid, milquetoast, safe depiction of the American middle class.  No parental negligence. No alcoholism.  No class warfare. No premarital sex, even. 

But the most important and sickening change is that this Nightmare on Elm Street believes it is absolutely okay (and even commendable) that the parents of Elm Street have lied to their children about the truth of their pre-school age-abuse at Freddy's hands, and his subsequent murder.  Where the original film was about digging and excavating the truth, no matter what, this film is about keeping the unpleasant things down and out of sight.  

At the end of the film -- I shit you not -- Nancy actually thanks her Mother for lying to her (to...her...face) about Freddy.  "I know you were just trying to protect me.  Thank you," she says. 

Okay, so the new A Nightmare on Elm Street totally undercuts the very theme of the original; the meaning of Nancy's journey.  That's established.  The question becomes: what does it replace that theme with?

Well, nothing really.  

The new film doesn't work on multiple levels.  It doesn't even work on one simple level actually; it's not remotely scary.  As far as I'm concerned that's the base-line for a horror movie.  It must scare.  It must excite.  It must get the blood pumping.

On that front, this remake tips its hand in the first five minutes, revealing Freddy in close-up during a "micro-nap" in a diner.  Remember how the original film kept Freddy in the shadows, giving the audience only glimpses of the dream avenger? 

Even that sense of artistry and patience is gone.  We know who we're up against from the get-go -- before the title card, actually -- and exactly what he looks like too.  True, this Freddy does look more like a burn-victim and less like a Halloween witch, but I'm not totally certain that's a fair trade.  After all, Freddy is supposed to be a supernatural avenger, not merely a walking corpse.   

Of course, one might argue legitimately that everyone knows who Freddy is by now, so the remakers had to show him -- full make-up monty-- early and get it out of the way.  I disagree: going into a remake a director/writer/producer can't just take as a given that the movie's Bogeyman villain is so well-known that he's not scary.   

Au contraire: the mission is to re-invent him so he is scary again.  Generating real horror requires patience. We should build up to Freddy's appearance; experience a sense of anticipation in his absence. What's he going to look like, now?

And this is not an impossible task, either.  Wes Craven did it well, re-inventing Freddy as a kind of Uber-Evil for Wes Craven's New Nightmare in 1994.  Explicitly, he connected Freddy to antecedents in the genre like Nosferatu (1922) and the story of Hansel & Gretel.  In this way, we understood that his brand of evil had always been with us.

So I don't ask for the impossible here, only that the movie provide us a new Freddy who is as terrifying to us today as the original was in '84, or in the re-imagined 1994 film. 

I should hasten to add, other directors have accomplished this task as well.  The zombies in Dawn of the Dead (2004) were rendered new and scary by their frightening speed, and a twist in their life cycle (only a bite passes the infection, not death in general).  And the clan of the new The Hills Have Eyes actually consisted of mutants; those who had been exposed to atomic testing in the desert.  That new wrinkle fit into the remake's argument about American international power, and Red and Blue States in the era of the War on Terror (and remember the death by American flag in the eyeball)? 

In all these cases,  significant changes to a classic "monster" (or group of monsters) were broached, but something imaginative was substituted for the old.  Nothing imaginative is substituted in A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  Freddy talks a lot, but cracks fewer jokes.  This sort of makes him dull, and less scary too.  Now he's debating about "what he wants" from the teens before killing them?  Let's just have a conference call too...

In terms of the teen characterizations, the new Elm Street is a disaster.  In the original film, audiences strongly identified with Nancy.  She was a brave kid, digging and probing to learn the truth, and dealing with Freddy...even engineering booby traps to stop him. 

But we also identified with her because she was a regular kid, and the movie featured scenes with Nancy and her friends just being kids.  Remember the scenes at Glenn's (Johnny Depp's house) in which they goofed off with a boom box and a sound effects tape?  These scenes reminded us how young they were; and how precious their lives were.  For god's sake, -- premarital sex or not -- they were innocent kids.

The new movie never once shows Freddy's would-be-victims acting like people or teenagers we can identify with.  They are morose, pale, fatalistic and imperiled from the movie's beginning.  They are undistinguished and uninteresting in the extreme.  If this is an accurate reflection of kids today, then we're really in trouble.  They can google and text, all right, but not crack a smile (or apparently get a tan). 

The new Nightmare on Elm Street also lacks the slightly-seamy, lower-class vibe of the original, and especially the energy of Craven's original.  This movie is so dull, it's the audience who wishes for a micro-nap. 

It's true that the movie re-stages all of the "trademark" moments of the original film: Tina's death, the body bag dragged by invisible hands, Rod's death in a jail cell, the final sting-in-the-tail/tale with Nancy's Mom, the boiler room locale, and Nancy in the bath-tub with the Freddy glove.  But it gives these moments no psychic weight, no importance, no relevance.  We've seen these moments before.  What's the twist? 

Again, look at how Dawn of the Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Hills Have Eyes played with expectations, and the set-pieces of the varied source material.

Again, it's like New Line made A Nightmare on Elm Street's "Greatest Hits" movie, but forgot to tell an interesting story, with interesting, human characters, within a context that is meaningful to us now.  The movie's opening dream set-piece is a prime example of how this film and the sterling original are determinedly different...and not in a good way.

In the first, original film, we see Tina (Amanda Wyss) emerging from a white light in a long, dank tunnel.  She is vulnerable, in her pajamas...and alone.  She walks towards us down that long hallway, and a lamb inexplicably crosses her path.  It's all slightly unreal, with strong dream imagery.  The corridor and light symbolize the tunnel, perhaps, between the dream world and the real world, and lamb is innocence being led to the slaughter.  The images mean something beyond a surface level.

In the new movie, a kid named Dean is in a diner, walks back into the kitchen, and meets Freddy.  He doesn't die.  He wakes up, and talks to his worried friends for five minutes.  Then, in plain view, he falls asleep again, meets Freddy and dies.   Again, in plain view. This is underwhelming and, more so, does not hint at the power and symbolism of our dream life.  It's so very literal and unimaginative, and this is, frankly, unforgivable in a film that should have great fun playing with the concept of dreams.

Here's my final assessment of the film: "Well, the producers got fat and Freddy got famous, but somebody forgot to make this movie more than a cliff-notes version of a classic, and Krueger wasn't scary anymore, just like that."

It's a shame.  New Line Cinema is "the House that Freddy Built" and the studio dishonors its benefactor with this by-the-numbers, uninspired remake.   A Nightmare on Elm Street, 2010 edition, isn't fun, isn't scary, and it doesn't mean a darn thing except a quick buck on opening weekend.